Museums and the Web: Conference Papers

Museums and the Web: An International Conference
Los Angeles, CA, March 16 - 19, 1997

Laura C. Lewis

At Home in the Heartland Online:
forming a museum/school resource via the World Wide Web


In February of 1996 I was employed by the Illinois State Museum (ISM) to help create the online exhibit At Home in the Heartland Online. I am a museum educator with experience in designing computer-aided instructional programs. Today I'll talk about what I have learned about creating a successful collaboration among three very different learning environments--the World Wide Web, the museum exhibit, and the classroom--and the people who work in these environments. I hope to contribute two things to this conference on museums and the web: an understanding of the complexities involved in bringing these three learning environments together; inspiration for other museum professionals to consider the Web as a dynamic vehicle for educational outreach into the classroom.

Background History

In the fall of 1995 the Illinois State Museum applied to Ameritech's "Distance Learning Application Program for Arts and Cultural Organizations." Ameritech was looking for programs that would utilize telecommunications technology for any number of outreach efforts to the public:

The ISM proposed to create an online exhibit based on the museum's popular history exhibit At Home in the Heartland. The online exhibit would establish links and educational partnerships among Ameritech, the museum, and Illinois public schools by integrating museum resources with school curricula in grades 3 - 12. Students would have the opportunity to access and study museum collections and archives through the online exhibit. Primary source materials specific to Illinois are not readily available to Illinois school children as they begin their study of American history.

The scope and breadth of this "pioneering effort at cultural inquiry and interpretation" was accepted and the museum received over $100,000. Ameritech's support meant that the ISM had 12 months to hire needed staff and create an online exhibit which would represent 300 years of Illinois history through six separate modules, contain hundreds of objects and images associated with family life in Illinois and domestic material culture, and include narratives of men and women who had lived in Illinois.

Realizing the Project

The " core team" consisted of the curator of decorative arts, a museum educator, and a website developer. In 10 months this team, assisted by a graphic artist, dozens of public school teachers, tech coordinators, and a five-person teacher advisory board created At Home in the Heartland Online. What are the particulars of this complex resource for Illinois students? At 30 megabytes large the website contains:

At Home in the Heartland Online went public December 31, 1996 and has been a success. How has success been measured?

The following comments are from the guestbook:

This is really the first interactive web site I have found for a social studies
unit. Our third grades are doing a pioneer days unit and this is perfect. I
more sites like this will become available in the future. This is an excellent
site and deserves and A+.
Eldorado, IL USA - Tuesday, March 04, 1997

I'm really impressed! I have just started "playing" on the Internet.
This is wonderful for the Illinois unit which is done in fourth grade. My
students will love it if we ever get linked. Thanks for a great job!
Western Springs, IL USA - Saturday, February 08, 1997

This is a terrific resource for teachers! I've added a link to my own
Resource page.
Pittsburgh, PA USA - Tuesday, January 28, 1997

This is a wonderful resource for those of us who teach Illinois History. I have
been doing so for nearly a quarter of a century, so I appreciate the work that
brought this to fruition. Congratulations on your achievement!
Coal City, IL USA - Thursday, January 09, 1997

What a great combination of activities for a wide range of student age groups!
This will certainly be part of the future in educational home pages. The format
was not only easily understood but also easy to follow for students as well.
Thanks for the contribution to our classrooms!
Lansing, IL USA - Monday, January 06, 1997

Collaboration is Key

At Home in the Heartland Online represents the successful collaboration among three very different and unique learning environments--the Web, the museum exhibit, and the classroom. Each of these environments has its own limitations vis a vis the other two; each has its own distinct features as a learning environment; each has played a unique role in the project; and each has its own content expert.

The content experts brought their special set of skills and knowledge to the project:

With the help of liaisons--the graphic artist, the museum educator, and technology coordinators from several public school districts--the content experts were able to express their needs and opinions with regard to the development of the online exhibit in a non-threatening and collaborative way.

To understand the alchemy that took place in the creation of At Home in the Heartland Online, consider the following analysis of the three different learning environments which came together in creating the website; followed by an identification of the different skills, needs, and perspectives brought by the content experts and liaisons from the brainstorming stage to theend result.

The Three Learning Environments

The Web is the medium

The World Wide Web (WWW) is a hypermedia information retrieval system which runs on the Internet and supports images, sound and video. It is part of the Internet, a network that has evolved over the last two decades to connect millions of computers around the world. It is accessed through a computer and a modem or a dedicated high band-width phone line ( T1 line).

As a learning environment the Web is defined by the following characteristics:


Confined to being viewed on a computer screen the Web is a two-dimensional learning environment. The greatest conceptual challenge the core team--curator, web developer, and museum educator--faced was how to distill a three-dimensional learning experience (the physical museum exhibit) into a two-dimensional space (the computer screen)--without losing complexity or meaning.


Hypermedia allows one to develop interlinking layers of information. A website can be organized to have a certain flow from the general to the more detailed or from one topic to other topics. The user is able to structure a website in much the same way one would organize a museum exhibit. A museum exhibit presents information to the visitor in visual layers which move from the general and visually prominent--objects, exhibit titles, and wall didactives--to the more detailed and less visually obvious--object labels. In a website users direct their path by clicking on icons, images, or "hot" text to take them from layer to layer.

Designing the exhibit content to make the best use of the Web's flexibility and hypermedia capability was a great challenge. The team felt that it was important to allow learners to choose their own path through the content. At the same time it was clear that there would need to be different paths for teachers, lower school students, middle school students, and high school students.

Interconnected and Global

A website has the ability to be interconnected. At Home in the Heartland Online is designed to allow for links between the different areas of content within each time period. Each area of information has its own icon. These icons are used to provide paths through the material. For example, a visitor in the maps section can visit objects by clicking on the objects icon at the bottom of the screen (see: athome /1950/maps/index.html and athome /1950/maps/hownavig.htm). Appropriate links to other websites are provided where they will complement this online resource, making it a global resource. From At Home in the Heartland Online, a visitor can go to many other websites in the country and the world.

Self Directed

Like a museum exhibit, a website is a self-directed learning environment. Visitor have the ability to choose a path through the material.

The exhibit provides the content

The physical exhibit, At Home in the Heartland, utilizes the domestic material culture collections of the ISM, documentary collections gleaned from over 140 historical collections in the state, and oral histories gathered for the project. It is an innovative effort to involve people with the objects of home and family life through simulated situations involving choice. In the gallery, these stories are represented by multi-media, touch-screen presentations. The visitor listens to the narrative of a person facing a life choice and participates in their decision-making. The narratives are based on historical records, oral histories, diaries, and letters reworked into a mini-drama by a playwright and read by actors and actresses. Other aspects of the physical exhibit include: timelines, maps, "side by side" which are cultural comparisons, and "clues to the past" which examine how historians recreate the past through primary source materials such as estate inventories, newspapers, family account books, catalogs, magazines, photographs, and oral interviews.

In order to be a useful classroom resource the content of the online exhibit had to complement the different curriculum needs of both elementary and high school aged students.

Teachers and students are the classroom

A classroom is a physical space animated by the interaction of students and teachers. Depending on the age group, a classroom may be a multidisciplinary learning space as in the case of the lower school; or in the case of the upper school, a classroom may be specialized to provide resources in one academic discipline alone. A classroom may be organized to support group learning and/or individual learning. Some classrooms have many resources around the edges of the room--reference books, reading materials, maps, insects, animals, plants, and computers. Other classrooms are organized according to the resources needed to pursue a particular study, i.e., a biology lab. In all classrooms it is the quality of the relationship that exists between the teacher and students that has the greatest implications for learning.

A successful classroom resource must enhance the relationship between teachers and students by being flexible enough to be used in a variety of ways, yet specific enough to address the curriculum needs of the different age groups.

The challenge was to create an online exhibit that could be used in a number of ways:

This type of multiple use in the classroom depends on the design of the website, the presentation of the content, and the flexibility of the teacher. Equally important is the addition of curriculum-based lesson plans, activities, and inquiry that address student and teacher needs, testing standards, and basic skills development for the students.

Content Experts and Liaisons

Designing an educational website destined for elementary and secondary school classrooms is an exercise in communication. An online exhibit like At Home in the Heartland Online is as much a partnership among the curator of the exhibit, the museum educator, and classroom teachers as it is between the web developer and the schools. Illinois public school teachers, administrators, and technology coordinators were involved from the outset in helping the core team--curator, web developer, and museum educator--design At Home in the Heartland Online. The team knew that if the online exhibit were to become a successful classroom resource it would have to address the needs and interests of teachers and students. The only way to find out what these needs were was by involving the intended audience in the design of the website.

The different roles of the design team

The curator had supervised the process of creating the physical exhibit and now supervised the development of the online exhibit. She edited the modules as they were created by the web developer and museum educator, using her knowledge of Illinois history and the exhibit content to correct errors or suggest changes. She was also the primary liaison with the granting agency.

The web developer created the structure and organization of the website. He was the exhibits department. Instead of paint, wood and nails, he used BBedit, Photoshop, scanners, and a computer.

The museum educator brainstormed how to make At Home in the Heartland Online an educational resource for the classroom. She enlisted the help of teachers throughout Illinois in this process and acted as a liais on among the curator, web developer, and these teachers. Her discoveries about teacher needs and use of technology in the classroom affected the overall design of the website. She developed suggested activities and inquiry questions to take the website out into the classroom and give teachers a structure for using the resource.

The graphic artist worked with the core team to create the main image for the homepage (a homepage is similar to a book-cover and table of contents) and the icons for the different content areas. He helped to create a "look" for the website.

The tech coordinators from several of the most progressive school districts in Illinois got involved in the project by invitation from the museum educator. They created opportunities for the team to introduce At Home in the Heartland Online to teachers during summer technology workshops. They saw the project as a partnership between their schools and the ISM. Three of these districts named the museum as part of a learning consortium of institutions involved in helping to raise the quality of education for students in their districts.

The Teacher Advisory Board was selected by the museum educator and paid a small stipend from the grant. The board consisted of two lower school teachers--a resource teacher for gifted 4th & 5th graders and a 4th grade teacher, two middle school teachers--a 6th grade social studies and language arts teacher and a 7th & 8th grade social studies and geography teacher, and a high school teacher--11th grade American Studies.

A formative evaluation of the website was designed by the same company that had evaluated the physical exhibit--People, Places and Design. The purpose of the evaluation was to record how the website was being used by students and teachers in the classroom and to measure if learning was occurring. Based on their findings the evaluation team suggested ways to improve the website.

The process of collaboration

The process of working together took place over three distinct phases. Each phase correlated with a deadline that had been set by the grant. By reviewing these phases it will become clear how the liaisons facilitated interaction among the content experts.

Phase I

Arriving at a visual look

In Phase I, the graphic artist worked with the rest of the team to give verbal ideas a visual look. It was decided that the homepage for the site would be a colorful gameboard, borrowing from the colors of the exhibit but using images of transportation to symbolize the different time periods (see: athome/index.htm l). The graphic artist developed this main image for the site, as well as individual icons to represent secondary areas of information--maps, timelines, "side by side," objects, and "clues to the past." Additional icons were added for the website--"teacher resources" and "how to navigate" (see: athome/1950 /index.html and athome/19 50/hownavig.htm). Based on this organizational framework, the web developer began to build the first module from the images and text that had been used to create the physical exhibit.

Establishing a network of teacher contacts

The museum educator worked to establish contact with a wide-range of people involved in the field of secondary education in Illinois. She worked to raise interest in the project and find answers to questions concerning curriculum and the use of technology in the Illinois public schools, through:

The museum educator's findings resulted in the following decisions:

Phase II

Summer workshops

The summer workshops were organized by the technology coordinators in school districts with connections to the Internet. Most technology coordinators see themselves as a part of the restructuring of public education from the traditional classroom to a constructivist model. These school districts had planned hands-on summer workshops to teach faculty computer skills, including Internet skills. At Home in the Heartland Online served as an introduction to the World Wide Web and as an example of the types of resources available through the Internet.

The "At Home" workshops were designed to:

Phase III


The core team created the final five modules. These were based on the first module which had been shown to teachers during the summer workshops and modified to reflect their suggestions. The museum educator worked closely with the Teacher Advisory Board to develop age-appropriate activities and discussion questions for the website.

The advisory board felt that the learning goals and objectives for the website must complement the Illinois State Board of Education's curriculum mandates for social studies and language arts. Activities were designed to help students develop critical thinking skills by involving students in historical research and dramatic writing. The teacher advisors felt that it was important for students to learn how to deal with primary sources, create their own raw data, and analyze this data to reach a conclusion. Many in-class activities use At Home in the Heartland Online as a model for student products (see: atho me/1950/TeachR/level3.htm).


It was apparent from the beginning that the evaluators were novice users of the World Wide Web and the Internet. No effort was made to capitalize on the Web medium and, for example, create an online questionnaire to provide additional data to that obtained through observation. The evaluation was limited to classroom observation and the field tester relied on anecdotal information to provide evidence of the online exhibit's educational value. The question arises, when a museum designs a computer aided instructional resource, such as an online exhibit, should it hire evaluators from the museum field or from the field of instructional technology?

The field tester observed one class of students at each of the three levels-- a 4th grade class (level one), a 6th grade class (level two), and a 10th grade class (level three)--over a six week period. Despite the limited range of her study the field tester's findings did point to problems that could be addressed, for example the need for a glossary of vocabulary words. Moreover, she witnessed the realities and difficulties of working with a resource that relies on emerging technologies. Based on her findings she reported the following:

In Conclusion

The time is ripe for museums to harness the power of the Web as a medium for educational outreach. The technology exists to make the process of web development fairly inexpensive and straightforward. As tellecommunications improve for the general population the Internet and WWW are becoming faster and more reliable. Regional governments are pushing to connect public schools to the Internet. The President has stated his commitment to provide all students especially those in geographically isolated and economically depressed school districts with access to the "information superhighway." Two relatively new professions exist--the museum educator and the technology coordinator--to facilitate the creation of online educational resources by museums for schools. Internet connectivity has the potential to give students access to the types of resources museums offer--authentic cultural and historical collections, scholarship and primary source materials. Educational websites created by museums will find favor with the education community, because they fill a need at no charge to the visitor. Through its website At Home in the Heartland Online, the Illinois State Museum fills such a need by providing classrooms and households throughout the state of Illinois, America and the world with an exciting and authentic resource on 300 years of family life in the "heartland" of America.

Copyright Archives & Museum Informatics, 1997

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